I’d like to say a few Words

In the pre-Twitter, pre-blog world of the mid-Nineties, I used to buy the NME as much for the singles adverts as the coruscatingly jagged reviews. It was a weekly event, a world of temptation and salvation, and an identity badge held between slightly grubby, inky fingers in front of schoolmates. I’ve been reading music magazines for over twenty years, graduating from Smash Hits to the weeklies, before adding an arsenal of monthly titles to bolster my curiosity and empty my wallet. They were already an integral part of my life before I started writing for one. The reviews section always felt like my spiritual home. The NME big reviews, often accompanied by grand illustrations, were urgent and biting, while the pages of Q and Select allowed you to luxuriate a little longer in the thoughts of many great writers. The losses of Vox, Melody Maker and a grotesquely redesigned Select were hard to take, suggesting that if the magazines were ailing so too was the music.

The early Noughties were a barren time for lovers of the music press. The NME had lost me, wandering off down a (now thankfully reversed) skinny-jeaned route to hell, with more emphasis on pictures than words, while Q was finding it very hard to adjust to a digital world where its original readers had moved towards Mojo, with its fifteen Beatles cover a year. New titles came and went, including the flimsy but spiky BANG! and the woefully limp X-Ray. Into a world of non-ironic Mel C covers and anti-stories about what The Strokes weren’t doing, came Word. With its lower-case masthead and dour picture of Nick Cave on the cover, it didn’t exactly scream “vital music ranting here,” but it did stand out. I took a punt and spent a National Express journey in its company. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it seemed to be taking contemporary music seriously at a time when few others were. Early issues with substantial pieces on Blur, Elvis Costello and a peculiar new device called the iPod sealed the deal.

A few months after welcoming it to the well-thumbed family, I finally decided to pursue a boyhood dream to get some music writing published and, with email the great leveller in terms of making yourself known, I set about contacting a few of my music writing heroes. When the call from Paul Du Noyer came, it took my twenty year old Literature student self a little while to take it all in but, within minutes, I’d been commissioned to write a page on Elvis Costello, covering three reissues and his jazz album, ‘North‘. Should you wish to put yourself through some slightly torturous bus analogies, you can see that article here.

 

From then on, I was one of Word’s reviews team for almost four years. It was a thrill which never waned, a novelty which never wore off, to go and flick through the magazine in Smiths, despite a copy residing at home, in order to see my work on sale. In a shop. Not that I was deluded enough to think anyone was buying it because I was in it. But I was in it. And that was what mattered. When the Word team rejigged the magazine and thinned down the reviews section, I was no longer required. I found it hard to be annoyed as I couldn’t quite believe I’d got away with it for as long as I had. The support and encouragement of Du Noyer and Jude Rogers, who would quickly take over the reviews section, meant a great deal and without those two particular people, I very much doubt I would still be reviewing today or writing this very piece. That is just one of the many reasons that made Friday’s announcement of the closure of The Word such a kick in the guts.

With the NME having recovered under recently departed editor Krissi Murison’s fine stewardship and Q as good as it has even been with former Word scribe Andrew Harrison in charge and a stellar team of writers in its pages, things didn’t feel quite so bleak for the music press of late. Word is beloved of many media folk but never quite seemed to attract the wider audience it needed. I had occasionally wondered how long it would continue to fight the good fight, but was always reassured by the dependable brash swagger of Mark Ellen and David Hepworth. Was it perfect? No. Is there more to atone for than just that Dido cover way back in 2003? Certainly. But was Word Magazine a creative, welcoming and enthusiastic community which offered something genuinely different? Without doubt, and I will miss it greatly. The great motto for every aspect of the music making, selling and reporting industries seems to be ‘adapt or die’, and yet here was something else which still didn’t work. Maybe there’s just no place for a wide variety of music magazines in the 21st century? Whatever the grim reality of the current situation, the end of this particular magazine hurts more than most. The complete set sits upstairs and will get revisited in the coming weeks. For all the tips, the laughs, the sighs, the ideas, the tunes and the work: thank you. Word.

A Week With… 7. Massive Attack – 100th Window

JP AWW 07

The first issue of Word Magazine appeared in February 2003, visually arresting with its Nick Cave cover and little flap telling you more about the contents and seemingly an alternative take on music journalism. To a certain extent, it has remained true to that purpose, although it’s far less revolutionary than it thinks it is. Having said that, I suspect I will be a reader forever, even if quality control slips, as it was the esteemed organ in which I got my first shot at reviewing. Paul Du Noyer and Jude Rogers ensured that I was kept in a healthy supply of free CDs but never quite comfortable enough to presume I would automatically get in the next issue. After some three and a half years of reasonably regular column inches, I was quietly jettisoned without explanation. The range of reviewers slowly slimmed until the very latest issue of the now definite-article enhanced, and New Stateman aping (in shape, if not content) The Word hit the shops last week. Now, only the big five or six reviews are farmed out to their top writers, while the smaller reviews are all done in house. Amongst those few ‘big’ reviews this month, is a positive and wisely argued piece on the new Massive Attack album ‘Heligoland’. Why is this relevant? That first issue had much the same space dedicated to ‘100th Window’ by the very same band. It did a fine job of putting the album in context for me and, reading about another music fan’s struggle to get their head around the music, it helped me to get to grips with what was, essentially, an underwhelming release from an extraordinary band. The ever-engaging Andrew Harrison described the record as “difficult to get into, but hard to get out of too,” and I soon knew what he meant.

massive_attack-100th_window

I became strangely obsessed with ‘cracking’ this album. I was sure that my initial sense of it as something cold and uninviting was down to a lack of familiarity and that, if I made the effort, it would all soon slot into place. I spent numerous glum National Express journeys poring over those nine tracks, my decrepit CD walkman rarely having anything else for company. Listening to it now, it’s hard not to think of the, frankly shit, emotions associated with that period in my life. What also comes to mind though is the fact that I never reached a conclusion. I just stopped listening to it at some point and never really went back. I don’t remember deciding it was crap but I don’t remember deciding it wasn’t, either. It just dropped off the radar and sat on the shelf gathering dust.

Returning to ‘100th Window’ this week has been a chore. Knowing that they have since produced a record a truly wonderful as ‘Heligoland’ makes this whole period of Massive Attack’s history stick in the throat a little. The corrupted soul and rhythmic cunning of their new album makes the autistically insular paranoia of ‘100th Window’ seem so utterly benign that it takes a concerted effort just to make it through to the end.

Sinead O’Connor’s appearances can be discounted without much effort. ‘What Your Soul Sings’ and ‘A Prayer For England’ are horribly jarring, whiny and utterly lacking in character. Yes, she’s absolutely recognisable, but then so are Piers Morgan and chronic flatulence. Horace Andy attempts to polish a turd with ‘Everywhen’ and ‘Name Taken’ but then I couldn’t hum either of these back to you right now. The tracks on which 3D takes lead vocals are a mixed bag, ‘Butterfly Caught’ and ‘Future Proof’ standing tallest and actually meriting repeat listens, but, fuck me, there must be easier ways to keep your ears entertained. Piers Morgan with chronic flatulence, perhaps?

I am now actually more disparaging about this album as a result of ‘Heligoland’. At the time of its release, ‘100th Window’ was the Massive Attack album we’d been waiting five years for. It was our duty to train ourselves until we liked it. It wasn’t them, it was us. Except it wasn’t. It was a blip. It’s the soundtrack at a wake for a few motherboards and a failed attempt to graft on some much needed RAM.

Oh, and before anyone emails telling me I’ve screwed up, the picture above deliberately links to ‘Heligoland’. I wouldn’t want anyone to put themselves through ‘100th Window’ on my account.

Where it all began

The latest dip into my oh-so-very self indulgent archives goes right back to the start. As I was lugging bags of shopping out of the boot, the phone rang and I answered, suitably flustered, with a curt, ‘Hello?’, not recognising the number. I was greeted with, “Hi, it’s Paul Du Noyer at Word magazine.” Being more than a little bit of a music press geek, this was a fairly unbelievable moment. My little piece on some Elvis Costello reissues that I’d emailed off a week or so previous had not only been received and read by Paul Du Noyer, but he actually liked it! And here he was, offering me the chance to do a page review of his new one, with the reissues rolled in for good measure. It’s one of those moments that I’ll always remember and it was an instant shot of euphoria that’s hard to top. Looking back at it now, its not too bad. The bus analogy could be worse and you can tell I used to absorb anything and everything I read  – I still regularly read six titles – but I reckon it’s not a bad debut!

Feel free to tell me otherwise!

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ELVIS COSTELLO

North (and re-issues of Get Happy! Trust and Punch The Clock)

Deutsche Grammophon

The odds of hearing Elvis Costello singing; “I want to kiss you in a rush, and whisper things to make you blush” were never very high. It is not what you would expect of him. Which is probably why he’s gone and done it. One suspects he’s not keen on the idea of being predictable. His last album, released on a hip-hop label was a College Chart Number One in America. Other recent work included providing the music for a ballet production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and recording the old Chaplin tune ‘Smile’ for a Japanese detective show. The man simply, and rather charmingly, cannot be pigeonholed. Speaking in WORD some months back, Costello told how he felt his last release, ‘When I Was Cruel’, “didn’t have a tremendous amount of heart” to it. By contrast his new album wears its heart ever so firmly on its sleeve.

Those of us willing to invest in Costello’s eclecticism have long since given up trying to guess what will be heard after pressing play on each new release. Pooling classical and jazz influences, ‘North’ plots an emotional journey that one would be churlish to pretend does not begin with his split from Cait O’Riordan in the autumn of last year. A sparse sombre tone pervades the initial tracks and you can’t help but wonder if loss and pain will loom like storm clouds over the entire album.

The mood lightens as the album progresses with a certain air of chronological autobiography. On ‘Still’, The Brodsky Quartet are finally reunited with Costello, a decade on from the glorious ‘Juliet Letters’, and their appearance appears to bring about a more engaging performance style that propels the record to its conclusion. ‘Let Me Tell You About Her’ is virtually a “conventional” love song, one of Costello’s first. You can almost picture Costello gliding over the keys in the corner of a smoky jazz bar, while the muted trumpet finale surely begs for a black and white film for it to soundtrack. It’s gorgeous, with the vocal making full use of Costello’s baritone while the lyrics are immensely heartfelt if unexpectedly, but utterly forgivably, a tad clumsy.

‘North’ comes to its close with ‘I’m In The Mood Again’, thus completing our hero’s journey towards his new-found happiness with Diana Krall. The melody reflects the lighter mood that has replaced the foreboding initial textures, and contentment is as prominent as it can be on an album bearing the legend ‘Elvis Costello’. In the sleeve notes of the remastered ‘Punch The Clock’ Costello describes much of his oeuvre as “allergic to the happy ending”, but, ever one to contradict, ‘North’ appears more than willing to buck such a trend.

As well as ‘Punch The Clock’, ‘Get Happy!’ and ‘Trust’ have also just re-emerged as part of the ongoing reissue programme. It’s hard to pick fault with the whole collection let alone these three, which between them contain over seventy bonus tracks; a live version of ‘High Fidelity’ aping the style of Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ and practically the entire ‘Punch The Clock’ album in its uncluttered demo form amongst the highlights.

Costello’s accompanying essays are almost worth the admission fee alone, with recollections as wide-ranging as mistakenly adding echo to Chet Baker’s trumpet part on ‘Shipbuilding’ and the magical imagery conjured by the phrase “a rather lifeless lesbian discotheque”, which was apparently the only nearby entertainment during the recording of ‘Get Happy!’. The remastered sound is warm and forgiving, even with parts of ‘Punch The Clock’, and the bonus discs are genuine delights in every instance.

It’s hard to imagine ‘North’ selling as well as these earlier albums did, and I can’t imagine Costello is that bothered. This is another of those albums he’s wanted to make, another expression of his desire to try everything and a record that will no doubt incite as much criticism from some as it will praise from others. It’s not a classic, but it’s a lovingly crafted record that you will keep returning to, slowly allowing its subtle charms to seep in.

Speaking to the BBC a few years ago, Elvis said: “if you don’t like this one, maybe you’ll like the next one. They’re not all a series of red buses that are all the same”. Listening to the shift from ‘When I Was Cruel’ to ‘North’, quite what sort of buses the record companies will be repackaging twenty years from now, God only knows.

Originally published in Word Magazine, 2003

That’ll be more of me then…

Two more from my reviews archive today. Both of these I stand by, though the second is probably the most bile strewn review I’ve ever written. Firstly, though, the never-ending majesty of Doves.

Doves - Some Cities

DOVES

Put on the headphones, unleash the rain and treat yourself to a truckload of euphoric melancholia as Some Cities sucks you in.

Anyone who has ever witnessed Doves live will vouch that onstage they produce a joyful racket, on a good night transcending their recorded output and achieving something truly beguiling. Their stunning debut, ‘Lost Souls’, was followed by 2002’s ‘The Last Broadcast’, an album that was never less than good but which failed to capture the widescreen sound of which this band are capable. With ‘Some Cities’, Doves come good on their early promise. Lead single, ‘Black And White Town’ careers along with a momentum so ferocious that it drops us smack into the next track before anything can get too familiar.

Never ones to allow genre boundaries to get in the way of a good tune, at times ‘Some Cities’ sounds like Doves have ripped off any number of little ideas, and yet the sum of these parts is ultimately unlike anything I’ve heard in ages. ‘The Storm’ opens with an electronically tinkered vocal and develops into the kind of atmospheric beauty that could soundtrack a million late night drives. This nocturnal claustrophobia dominates much of the record, before collapsing in on itself for the ethereal, and oddly serene, closing track ‘Ambition’.

The lyrics tackle changing relationships, attitudes and places, in most cases not changes for the better. Fear, anguish and battling the worst have always been key lyrical concerns for Doves, but they do it with more conviction than most. When I heard ‘I tried to sleep alone, but I couldn’t do it’, on ‘The Cedar Room’ over five years ago, I believed every word. On this evidence, life hasn’t got much more carefree.

Some Cities is on Heavenly.

Originally published in Word Magazine, 2005

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BILLY CORGAN

Now somewhat less smashing, Billy Corgan returns with The Future Embrace, an album dogged by the past.

It’s rare when a successful band crumbles for the lead singer to subsequently achieve similar success on their own. Going on this evidence, it seems unlikely that Billy Corgan will buck this trend. Where the scope of the Smashing Pumpkins’ music enthralled, the heavy, over-bearing production of this effort ensures that any half-decent songwriting is buried beneath turgid rhythms and distorted drums.

Tracks flow by with such scant regard for the listener’s enjoyment that the tedium begins to annoy. The Eighties sounds that are being so successfully plundered by the likes of The Killers and Goldfrapp are all over this record, and yet someone appears to have forgotten to add anything new to proceedings. It’s a shame that one of the album’s few highlights, ‘Strayz’, is the closing track, as I suspect most people will have got bored some time prior to its fragile melody gracing the speakers. Stripped of the dense noise that suffocates the majority of the album, ‘Strayz’ finds Corgan at his most refreshingly simple, his voice working with the music rather than against it.

The greatest disappointment of the whole affair is the much vaunted collaboration with Robert Smith. At least William Shatner has the good grace to admit he’s taking the piss when he does his covers; Corgan’s attempt at ‘To Love Somebody’ sounds like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang doing a Depeche Mode tune at the local karaoke night. You have been warned.

Originally published in Word Magazine, 2005

A self-indulgent way to pass the time

Hello, dear readers. The end of the decade best of list is proving tougher to finalise than I thought it would be, so that’ll have to wait just a little longer. As part of this process, I’ve been revisiting some of the reviews I’ve written over the past six or so years and thought it might be interesting to post them here and see if I was on the money, wide of the mark or simply babbling incoherently. I should say before I start this, I’m not overly thrilled with all of these and they will be the original texts as I submitted them to the magazines, and so any bits that got subbed by my erstwhile reviews editors will still be here.

To kick off, a review of Supergrass’ best of, from 2004. I’m in the middle of doing a piece about their charming new extra-curricular project, The Hot Rats, so I thought I’d drop this one out there.

Supergrass_is_10 

SUPERGRASS SUPERGRASS IS 10

(Parlophone)

The grammatically correct but aesthetically depressing title aside, this particular retrospective is something of an unknown history. After their tumultuous arrival in the midst of Brtipop, Supergrass’ star has appeared, through no fault of their own, to have been on the blink. Seemingly rather keen to point out that it wasn’t all cavorting on bikes and bendy-legged Muppets videos, this set gamely attempts to represent both sides of the ‘Grass. .

The soul of Britpop hasn’t lost any of its vigour when it reappears on a fair wedge of tunes culled from the band’s debut, ‘I Should Coco’, a spirit that is reprised on tracks from their underrated and notably under-bought last album, ‘Life On Other Planets’. There is a slight feel, however, of being down the indie-disco and the dreaded fear that Shed Seven might pop up at any time is never far from your mind. Where this record really strikes gold is in highlighting the band’s knack for contemplative, melodic acoustic tunes such as ‘Late In The Day’ and the glorious ‘It’s Not Me’. The parent album of this pair, ‘In It For The Money’, remains their finest achievement and is as deserving of the moniker ‘The Best Of Supergrass’ as this particular compilation.

Hugely enjoyable current single, *Kiss Of Life* comes on like a cross between The Charlatans and T-Rex with added silly noises, while other obligatory new track, *Bullet* offers a heavier sound but manages to forget to add a melody. Where they go next is unknown, but what they’ve already done bears some repeating.

VERDICT: Enjoyable nostalgia, but all you need is their superlative second album.

KEY TRACKS: Grace, Going Out, It’s Not Me

Originally published in Word Magazine 2004

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I largely stand by this, five years on, although there’s a slightly snide reference to Shed Seven there that’s helping nobody.

The other one for today is simply proof that I’ve always known what I was talking about.

elbow

ELBOW

Leaders Of The Free World finds Elbow delivering a work of global majesty.

Beardy, Mancunian melancholia is an integral part of the modern music scene. Where previously local rivals such as Doves have stolen a march on them, Elbow have set about fulfilling the promise that was so clear on their first two albums. Initially purveyors of more muted, atmospheric efforts, this time out the band seem far more confident of their sizeable talents

Mostly set in the urban wilds of Manchester, the brief global view attempted in the title track proves to be a remarkably successful – now say this quietly – ‘political song.’ The beauty of lines such as, “passing the gun from father to feckless son,” in neither being too blatant nor too pious ensures that the ham-fisted, vacuous efforts of many before them are not repeated in this gem of a tune.

The album maintains its quality throughout, two of the latter songs amongst the best things I’ve heard all year. ‘The Everthere’ employs similarly muted percussion to that of Blur’s charming, ‘Out Of Time’ and is one of frontman Guy Garvey’s finest vocal performances on the record. This is only surpassed by ‘Great Expectations,’ which tells the tale of an imaginary wedding on the last bus home between our man and a hitherto unknown young lady, for which “a call-girl with yesterday eyes was our witness.”

Such endearingly well-imagined lyrics are typical of ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, an album that comes good on Elbow’s previous hints at greatness and which will surely rank amongst the finest releases of the year come December.

Leaders Of The Free World is on V2

Originally published in Word Magazine 2005

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What can I say? I was playing the vinyl of this the other night, having just listened to the deluxe edition of ‘Asleep In The Back’ and was reminded that they’ve always been great, it just took the public a while to pick up on that fact. The rather lovely Jude Rogers, who was my reviews editor at the time, was part of the judging team who gave the Mercury Music Prize to them for ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ and she later told me that after falling in love with their fourth album, she was reminded of me banging on about how great they were and that I was right all along. Quite so!